It was a hot August night, and James Paul Tate Jr. was on a street corner on Wisconsin Aveneu NW, drinking cold beer when police arrested him for being drunk in public.
Tate, who claims that police "call me Sky King and harass my body," was hustled into a paddy wagon. After a night in jail, the man who said he drinks to cleanse "the impurities from my bloodstream" found himself in District of Columbia Superior Court.
A deputy U. S. marshall ushered Tate to a seat in Courtroom No. 17 - arrainment court - where six days a week, one after another, defendants are called before the bar of the court to answer guilty or not guilty to charges against them.
"Tell me how I can get free," said Tate, 35, as he stood before Judge DeWitt S. Hyde.
In Courtroom No. 17, the first stop for a defendant in the city's criminal justice system, how one can "get free" depends on the nature of the charge, the identity of the judge, prosecutor and defense attorney and whether the defendant has a job, a family and a place to live.
Courtroom No. 17 is a place where quick decisions are made every day amid a litany of exuses for crime and pleas for release. It is a place where persistence can pay off or hurt.
"We don't give legal advice," Judge Hyde told Tate. In the courtroom, a young lawyer sat reading a paperback copy of Gore Vidal's "1876." Hyde appointed him to represent Tate.
Lawyer and client disappeared behind a green leather door near the judge's bench. In less than a minute, Tate whose long red hair and beard, rolled-up trousers and boots gave him the look of a seafaring adventurer, was back in his seat.
Tate will plead guilty, the lawyer told Hyde. The judge then sentenced Tate, a first offender, to six months' probation and explained that during that time Tate must not break the law or he will go to jail.
"Yeah, I'll behave myself," Tate said.
"You all take it easy now, thank you," he added as he waved goodbye and bounded out of the courtroom.
It was a light touch in a long day for judge Hyde, who was to preside over a stream of complaints about unleashed dogs, drunks, prostitutes, various forms of assault, robberies, forgeries and burglaries.
"It would drive me nuts," Hyde said later, if he had to sit in arraignment court for a term longer than his three-week assignment.
Juggling the sheer volume of cases - an average of 60 to 70 a day - is in itself a feat for both judge and prosecutor.
"You've got to stick there and keep them moving as fast as you can," Hyde said.
For Hyde, who prefers civil to criminal law, the boredom of sitting in arraignment court, in a leather chair under a crooked picture of George Washington, bothers him most.
"The majority of court work really is boring," said Hyde, a former congressman. But an assignment to arraingnment court is "one of the worst," he said.
For some, such as attorney James M. Doyle, who supervises local law students who work in Superior Court, a day in arraignment court can be a welcome relief from the daily routine.
Doyle stopped by No. 17 recently to pick up a court-appointed case. His client was a roofer charged with forgery. The government wanted the roofer held in jail on a $5,000 bond, saying the man had difficulty adjusting to conditions of his parole on another charge. His employment, they said was only occasional.
That is because the roofer is assigned work by his union, Doyle told Hyde. His employer had guaranteed Doyle that the roofer would be at work the next day if the court agreed to release him.
In addition, Doyle told Hyde, the roofer is the sole support of his family and if jailed, would not receive treatment needed for his drug problem.
"This is a borderline case," Hyde said, releasing the roofer on personal recognizance.
In the hallway later, Doyle said he was surprised at Hyde's decision, considering that the D. C. Bail Agency had recommended the roofer not be released. Perhaps his own effort, Doyle said, in regaining freedom for the roofer. Generally speaking, Doyle said, attorneys in arraignment court "are a little quiter" than he was.
Along with the tedium of No. 17. Judge Hyde said, there is theoccasional challenge, such as the case of Joseph Glenwood Penn.
Penn, 36, an unemployed alcoholic, was before Hyde recently because, the government alleged, he had beaten a child with a baseball bat after the child had a eaten a doughnut.
"I'd like to address the question of bond," Penn's attorney told Hyde after Penn entered a plea of innocent to a charge of assault with a dangerous weapon.
The attorney wanted Penn released pending the outcome of the case against him so Penn could enter an alcoholic treatment program immediately.
"When he is away from alcohol, he is perfect husband. It's only when he abuses alcohol..." the attorney said before Hyde interrupted.
"Yes...but he's got another problem, too. He was in St. Elizabeth Hospital in 1972...I think he's going to have a forensic," Hyde said.
In a "forensic" Penn would be examined by a court psychiatrist to determine if Penn understood the charges against him and if he was mentally competent to assist his attorney in preparing his defense. Penn and the file on his case desappeared behind the green door.
After a couple of hours and more cases, Penn and his file were back before Judge Hyde. His hands clasped behind his back. Penn shook his head as Assistant U. S. Attorney William E. Bucknam described the incident with the baseball bat.
The government wanted Penn held on a $5,000 bond. Not only had he allegedly beaten one child. Bucknam told the judge, but Penn had just been released from probation for burning another child.
"Oh, my heavens," Hyde said.
But the judge cautioned the government's attorney, "Under this silly (where) there is this safety question..."
The "silly" law is a provision of the D. C. Bail Act of 1971, which says that money bond may not be set to insure the safety of any person or the community. Money bond may be set only if there is a risk that the defendant will not show up for his next day in court. If danger is the question, the government is supposed to submit to the court a motion for a detention hearing, during which, the court would decide whether to hold the defendent in jail, without bond, prior to trial.
With Penn, whose wife and family live in the District and whose community ties were strong enough in the court's opinion to assure his next appearance, the question was safety - not fight.
"You're doing it right in the teeth of the statue, you know that," Hyde warned the assistant U. S. attorney who asked for the high money bond.
"The government still recommends $5,000," Bucknam said.
"In light of the record with those children that's the only thing I see we can do," Hyde said. Penn was led from the court by deputy U. S. marshals and held on a $5,000 bond.
"I just felt that was the position we should take, based on the defendant's record," Bucknam said later.
There is something to the idea that people should not be denied or granted their freedom on the basis of how much they can pay a bondsman. Hyde said during a conversation in his chambers."The theorists say that if he (the defendant) was Mr. Got Rocks and you set a $50,000) bond, Mr. Got Rocks could put up his $50,000 and walk out," whereas other defendants could not afford the price of freedom, Hyde said.
"And there is something to that" he said. "But once in a while where you have these cases where it looks real dangerous, we do fix a bond where perhaps we shouldn't," Hyde said.
Prosecutors, flooded with cases, argue that they do not have the time to prepare formal requests for pretrial detention, courthouse sources said. Besides, some judges at the Superior Court will set high money bonds despite provisions of the Bail Reform Act, the sources said.
Prosecutors and judges often follw the recommendations of the D. C. Bail Agency, which interviews each defendant prior to his appearance in No. 17, agency director Bruce D. Beaudin said.
Recommendations for release are based on a defendants community ties - residence, employment and family in town - objective criteria that the bail agency believes are indicative of whether a defendant will show up for his next court appearance. Chances for release are reduced if the defendant has a prior criminal record or if he has a problem with alcohol or drugs.
If a defendant does not meet bail agency requirements for release, the decision is left to the court. If a defendant previously violated terms of his release or failed to appear in court, the agency will not consider a release recommendation.
The agency also may recommend that a preventive detention hearing be held to determine if the defendant is a danger to the community and should be held without bond.
"This point in the process is the first decision on liberty or not," Beaudin said.
"My gripe is...most of the people detained are not detained the way the law says they should be."
The U. S. attorney's office and judges have been criticized for using the money bond to sidestep formal requirements for pretrial detention. But public outcry has focused on instances in which defendants charged with serious crimes have been released under terms of the bail act and then committed new crimes.
In 1976, three youths accused of murdering society matron Glady's Hinckley Werlich were released on bond before trial."
One of the youths, an 18-year-old, was free on personal bond for a robbery charge when he was arrested as a suspect in the fatal beating of the 85-year-old woman.
In another case, a suspect in an unusually brutal incident of burglary and rape, who was clearly eligible for release under the bail act, was released within 12 hours of his arrest.Previously, he had been arrested twice for nighttime burgalries in the same neighborhood. Each time, he was released on personal recognizance.
"Thatact says that no financial bond can be fixed for safety...we try to get that across to the public but people you talk to never understand it..." Judge Hyde said.
"The theory of the (bail act) is sound, but in practice...it's very difficult to apply," Hyde said.
When flight and not safety is the question, it becomes an issue of how much a defendant can pay to get out of jail and back on the street. That was the last question Hyde confronted before he closed up No. 17 for the day.
Earlier that afternoon, Hyde had ordered that a well dressed young man, a fugitive from Maryland on a forgery charge, be held on a $5,000 bond. When found by police, the man was hiding under a pile of clothing in the attic of his father's house, the government said.
When Hyde set the money bond, the man's attorney, D. Mitchell Basker, vigorously protested that his client had "a perfect track record" for court appearances in the past and was a lifelong resident of the community.
As Hyde was about to leave the courtroom, Basker asked to make a second appeal to have the bond reduced. A bench conference was called.
The man's father, a longtime employee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was in the courtroom and could pay as much as $2,000 for his son's release. Basker said he told the judge. The father already had suffered two heart attacks and might have another if his son had to spend another night in jail, Basker said.
Hyde agreed to reduce the bond to $2,000 cash.
As he left the courtroom, Basker handed a reporter his business card. Below his name and address the card read, "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."